Help via Ko-Fi

The Good Die First

By Lieut. Frank Kent

Bud Hacken thought he could lick the whole Nazi air fleet. But when a brave man died to prove how wrong he was, he had to make up for his fatal mistake.

"IT'S murder! Just plain murder!"

Major Hank Lowder's tight face was a ragged scar in the half-light of the doghouse as the exclamation burst from his lips. His bushy brows seemed to droop over the icy slits of his restless eyes. His bristly blond hair was parted by a ghastly green groove where a machine gun slug had plowed its way through his scalp. The burn scars on his face, received when he had crashed with his engine on fire, glowed red even in the half-light.

He wasn't a lovely sight, and he knew it, but he didn't give a damn. Each time they'd patched him up, they'd said the scars would heal. Perhaps they would, if he lived long enough. But there were other kinds of scars inside—scars that would never heal.

The job of playing God over the destinies of mere striplings was more than they had a right to ask of him. The toughest sector on the front—Nazi squadrons like that of Gustaf Fahnk to reckon with. . . .

Lowder's big teeth ground together with a rasping sound, and his lean ?st kept striking the table sharply. With a mechanical movement of his long arm, he put the cognac bottle to his lips and drained it. Then he hurled the empty bottle against the far wall where it exploded in a shower of glass.

The damned job was getting him! Maybe Wing wasn't to blame. It was the system that was wrong. Why did they always send up the best men to be killed off first in a war? Why didn't they rake the country for cripples, lunatics, sub-normals and criminals, and send them off first to be slaughtered and maimed and ruined?

Lowder dreaded going out to meet the replacements due today. If he was honest, he'd tell them:

"You haven't got a chance! You can remember your maneuvers—you can point with pride to your records with the photo guns. You can pull the hair on your chest, if you have any, and make your big talk, but you're going to die. And the better you are, the quicker you go, because you'll have the nerve to hound Gustaf and his flyers, and they'll kill you. Maybe not today—or tomorrow—but they'll kill you!"

That's what he'd tell them if he was honest. Instead he'd have to go out there and vomit up a lot of trash about confidence, nerve, formation tactics and victory!

He rolled a fag, took a long pull, stabbed it out against his shabby desk as Lieutenant Reeves slammed in the door. Reeves boasted a wooden leg, and a shriveled arm, the result of a fierce attack against a bombing squadron the first day of the war. He had been one of the first contingent of the 92nd, and between him and Major Lowder existed that bond which strong men create among themselves.

Reeves had earned a discharge with glory, but he had refused to go, and Lowder had gotten him assigned to the 92nd on special duty.

Now Reeves grinned, as though he was a little ashamed of what he was doing. The thick throat that supported his bullet head seemed to gulp over the words.

"The new batch of goslings is ready for your inspection, Major. Fine lookin' bunch of lads—for the boy scouts!" Then, noticing the haggard look on Lowder's face, added quickly, "You want I should feed 'em that old hooey?"

"I'll see them myself," Lowder said warily, and kicked back his chair.

He moved like a gaunt skeleton worked with wires as he walked across the tarmac. Reeves limped behind him, having difficulty in keeping up with him.

The four gleaming rookies were pictures of sartorial splendor. Shiny leather—neat serge—polished brass. With his worn, unpolished boots, with his shirt thrown open at the throat and his sleeves rolled up, Lowder made a grim contrast to the eager kids.

For a long minute he stood on spraddled legs and stared at them. There was something familiar about the blond, gawky kid on the left of the line. Lowder turned his eyes away from them, and made his talk.

"You've no doubt got notions about this business. You've probably heard fantastic stories about honor and glory and high purpose. Forget them! You're going out of here in suicide squadrons riding lightning itself. That's how we strike in modern war. Remember this, dogfights are absolutely out. If you keep out of the Germans' way, and don't break formation you'll get along all right. That's all."

Lowder's big mouth firmed up at the evident disappointment in their eyes, all except the kid on the end. Perhaps they had expected more of him. Well, he didn't have more to give.

"That's all," he repeated. "What are your names?" He glared at the first man in line.

"Lieutenant Watkins!"

"You're excused," Lowder growled. He excused Burns and Piper in turn, then glanced again at the blond youth on the end of the line.

"Lieutenant Hacken—Bud Hacken," the blond kid said flatly.

LOWDER tensed. It came to him then. For one fierce moment he could see a burning plane, a grinning redhead in its pit. He could still see that redhead, who had been Phil Hacken, riding that burning Hurricane into hell with a farewell wave of his spade-like hand. It all see med like a century ago, but in war a week is a year. Phil had seen a chance to get Fahnk on his own and had broken formation. Three Nazi's had dived in perfect tactic formation and riddled him.

"Any relation to Phil Hacken?" Lowder asked casually.

"Brother. That's why I've begged my way into this out?t."

Lowder liked the firm, definite sound of the lad. "Phil Hacken had a great record," Lowder said shortly, "you'll do well if you equal it."

The kid's face hardened. The color seemed to recede a little, setting the freckles out distinctly. "I don't give a damn about a record, sir," the kid said softly. "I've come to kill Gustaf Fahnk!"

Lowder cursed—a string of blue phrases that struck fire as they spat past his teeth. "Sure, you want to get Gustaf Fahnk. So do I and so do a dozen others I could name. Phil wanted to get him, too, and that's why Phil is pushing poppies out of that slop beyond the Siegfried Line. But if you try to do what your brother did, I'll ground you. Get that? Now get the hell out of here!"

The kid saluted stiffly, and Lowder was troubled by the icy stare in the youngster's eyes. He watched the blond as he legged stiffly away. The kid had Phil's eyes and broad shoulders. Great guy, Phil. If the kid came anywhere near being as good, it meant trouble for a few Nazis.

Lowder shrugged his beefy shoulders and trudged back toward the doghouse. He slammed in, dug a full bottle of cognac from his desk. He had four more human lives to lead out where death could snatch them with greedy hands.

IT was as he was gulping the second drink that he heard the roar of a plane. He jerked a look at the window. A Hurricane was weaving a swift veil of dust as it spun down the runway!

Lowder cursed. He leaped for the door, raced to the line where two startled mechs were gesticulating wildly. Lowder spun the first mech around.

"Who's taking off on solitary?" he cried.

"Damme sir," the man gasped, "one of them crazy rookies hooked that crate off the test line l "

"Who was it?"

"The blond hick—Hacken, I think his name is."

"Is that ship fit to fly?" Lowder snapped.

"It'll fly all right," the mech agreed, "but the guns have only about twenty rounds of ammo in them."

Lowder cursed. His first contact with the kid had aroused his affection. For Phil Hacken's sake he had to see that Bud didn't throw his life away for nothing more than a noble gesture. It was entirely possible 'the lad might run into Gustaf Fahnk's staffel, and if he dared attack them . . .

"Roll out my ship!" Lowder barked hotly.

He dragged on teddies and goggles and helmet as the mech's got the motor roaring. Then he legged into the pit, closed the top and jerked a look at his tank gauges. He jabbed the throttle. Thunder rolled across the field and crashed back from the doghouse. He didn't bother with the chocks, but rocked off—lunged forward—bit down the field and jerked into the air!

By the time he had cleared the ground haze, the kid's ship was a speck in the sky toward Naziland. Grimly, Lowder nursed the straining engine to cut down that distance.

He was within a half mile when it happened. He saw five Messerschmitts slam down, metal fuselages flashing in the sun. For one awful minute the kid was blotted out. Then Lowder caught sight of him fighting his wobbling Hawker Hurricane.

By some stroke of Fate, he'd survived that first onslaught. Lowder prayed a little, squeezed the wheel in his eagerness to get in and help the youngster. He was remembering Phil Hacken. Phil had been a special friend of his. Now this fool kid brother . . .

The next instant Lowder could tell why the kid had been spared. The Messerschmitts zoomed back. Gustaf Fahnk's ship detached itself from the others. He'd been unable to resist the invitation to a dogfight. Those others drew off, to watch this one-sided duel the results of which were already a certainty.

Lowder spoiled their plans. He smashed through ships with his own Hurricane, jabbed a stream of lead at Fahnk before the German could fire a burst. Fahnk jerked a startled look across and rolled out.

Lowder found himself in a spot of horror. Converging streams of tracers webbed him in! He felt his Hurricane shudder as the hot lead knifed through it. Little holes appeared in his wings. Vicious hammers mangled his dash. Curious fingers plucked at his clothing!

Desperately, Lowder jerked the wheel against his guts and nosed up in a half loop. He rolled out at the top. Desperately he signaled the kid to stick in the middle of the Nazis. Lowder dived in among the Messerschmitts and flattened. They couldn't fire at him now, without hitting one another.

It was an old trick of the war of 1914-18. But the kid wasn't looking for tricks. Flaunting every precaution, he broke out of the middle of the weird fight. There was no sense in the maneuver and its very foolishness saved his life. And it did more than that.

So unexpected was Bud Hacken's crazy move that it caught even the German's flatfooted. The kid, in a plane just off the test line, with but ten rounds remaining, slammed onto Gustaf Fahnk's tail!

Lowder glared, goggle-eyed. It was unbelievable. Even as he watched, he saw the tracers lick out like threads of lace and caress the Messerschmitt. He saw Gustaf Fahnk's head snap forward, blood spurting from a hole near the neck!

Lowder screamed to assure himself that he was awake. It was unbelievable, it was a fluke, but it was true. The kid had done what he'd set out to do! He'd killed the great squadron leader, Fahnk, in a dogfight!

THE rest of the Messerschmitts seemed to forget the two enemy ships. They were staring with unbelieving eyes at their leader spiraling down in a winged coffin.

Lowder saw his chance to break away. He hunched down, batted the trips and bored a hole through the German staffel. Then he was free, cursing Bud Hacken who was loath to leave the scene of his triumph.

Lowder got the kid turned around, and they screamed for home, with the Nazis too dazed to follow them.

Lowder was boiling inside. The kid's victory was pure luck, nothing more. One time in a thousand a man might hit his adversary in the head from a plane traveling at two hundred and fifty miles an hour. Even then, the man would have had to have some experience and practice under actual fighting conditions.

Lowder knew he could never convince the kid that his hit was a fluke. Before he could make Bud Hacken realize the truth, the kid would go out and get himself killed trying to duplicate the feat.

Lowder slammed his crate down on the tarmac of the 92nd, rolled into the line and legged down. He flipped his goggles off, turned to meet the kid who was rolling up in his riddled Hurricane.

The kid climbed down, a cocksure grin on his face. Now was the time to save the kid's life, Lowder told himself.

"Hacken," he snapped, "you disobeyed orders. Not only that, you stole a ship from the test line, that wasn't okayed for duty."

"But I killed Gustaf Fahnk, major," the kid said swiftly, proudly.

"It wouldn't be any use to tell you that Fate killed Fahnk. It wouldn't help any to show you that you played into a wild piece of luck. It wouldn't stop you to explain that your very damned foolishness; turned the trick. For what you did, I'm breaking you down so low that a greasehog'll look like an admiral to you!"

The color drained from Bud Hacken's face. He said slowly, with taunt driving the words, "Jealous, major?"

The tone of the words ignited a white flame of anger within Lowder's skeleton form. His ?st drove up from the knee. There was the smack of bone against flesh and the kid was lifted from the ground, hurled back under the wheels of Lowder's ship.

LOWDER didn't wait for him to get up. He spun on his heel and started for his doghouse. Reeves was hobbling to catch up with him.

"Is it true, Lowder?" Reeves asked, wheezing for air. "Did the kid down Fahnk?"

Lowder nodded. "Yes." Plugged him dead center in the head on a fluke play."

"Jees!" Reeves gasped. A strange, longing light came to the crippled man's eyes. Reeves, a useless husk of what had been a brave man, still longed for a chance at the Nazis. His leg was gone, his arm was shriveled, but his heart was up in the sky.

"You know what it means?" Lowder lashed out.

"That he'll be good and fly formation now that his brother's death has been avenged," Reeves hazarded.

"Like hell he will. He'll think he's a little tin god, and he'll be a likely victim for the lousiest formation flyer in the Nazi air force!"

"So what?"

"So we've got to prevent it. We've got to take him down a peg or two, and I'm holding him out of patrols. I'll have to report the victory, of course."

Reeves snorted knowingly. "You kind of like the kid, don't you, major?"

Lowder didn't answer at once. He was looking far off, seeing strange things that constricted his lean throat.

"Sure I like him," he said dully. "If I didn't would I be taking on like this? Haven't I sent too many men to their deaths to lose interest in how more might die? The kid's like Hacken—remember him—how he used to cut up—a hellcat he was . . ."

"Sure I remember him—along with the others," Reeves said softly, and he might have added, "along with my leg and my arm, and the fierce call of battle!" Without knowing it, Reeves' whole body seemed to cry out for action—it was in his eyes, glowing like banked fire—it was in his speech underscoring the words he spoke.

"All right, then," Lowder said swiftly, "We've got to take the kid down a peg until he learns what it's all about."

He called Wing and reported the death of Gustaf Fahnk. Lowder believed that would end that affair. After all there were men as good as Fahnk still flying just over the line. Von Mehcken and Baron Lieber.

But Lowder's report struck fire in the imagination of a young Wing Colonel, and Fahnk's death was seized upon as an occasion to bolster up the morale of the entire air force. Lowder was shocked to get a phone call from Wing that same day.

"Lieutenant Hacken has been cited for a decoration," the Wing Colonel explained exuberantly. "He's being given special leave to go to Paris for the presentation, and you are instructed to give him command of a squadron upon his return."

The substance of that message was in such contrast to the punishment Lowder had prescribed for the kid, that he at first could hardly find words to frame his thoughts.

"Medal," he spluttered, "medal—citation! Fireballs and damnation, the young hellion needs a whappin' on the seat of his pants!"

"We'll not argue that point," the colonel snapped. "Wing has good reason for publicizing young Hacken's victory. Have him report to G. H. Q. tomorrow!"

LOWDER sat staring at the dead phone. Then his grim lips spat out a string of sizzling oaths. That was war for you. A squadron might pile up a score of earned victories and never be mentioned in dispatches. Along comes a kid who can't obey orders, and he gets sugarballs and champagne for making a pot shot that couldn't be repeated in a hundred years!

Lowder slammed the phone down, and fished out his private stock. He gulped half a bottle before he stopped for air. The liquor burned in his stomach, raced through his blood like fire, but even that wasn't much good any more. He was getting sick of the whole damned thing. Reeves, half a man, forgotten. The kid, no man at all . . . It was sickening.

Lowder drank again. His thoughts became a little hazy. Even the sound of planes taking off didn't disturb him. He had to give the kid the message from Wing, and he didn't like the job. Not that he was afraid of anything, or anybody, but he knew what it would mean for the kid—it would be the kid's death warrant.

A sudden pounding on the door brought Lowder to his feet. "Come in!" he growled thickly.

A greasy mech slammed in, gasping for air. "Lieutenant Hacken, sir—he—he took off in your plane!"

Lowder tensed. "My plane? Was it serviced?"

"No. We hadn't got around to it yet. He swore he was going to show you that his victory wasn't a fluke—he was going to show you that he could do it again."

"Why didn't you stop him?" Lowder looked as though he would leap across the floor and tear the mech apart.

"Couldn't, sir. He walked the ship off, and blew out on a cold engine. That ain't all, sir."

"What else is there?" Lowder's voice was a tight snarl.

"Reeves went after to turn him back—went out in the crate the kid used this morning. There's not more than three slugs left in those belts, sir. If he turns the kid, well and good. If he don't . . ."

Lowder started for the door like a tightly wound spring loosed suddenly. "Roll me out a ship, dammit!" he cried, "what are you standin' there for?"

Without helmet or goggles, Without teddies or gloves, Lowder plunged into the pit of the Hurricane they rolled out for him. He jiggled the throttle to get the Merlin hitting. Raw gasoline flared red from the stacks. He waved the chocks out, andtook down the field l with the mighty engine still missing.

Up—up—up he spun in a tight spiral. Then he shot out toward the east. Behind him, the sun hung low in the sky like a clot of blood. It gave a red tingle to the sky, as though the crimson blood of the ravished earth below had stained the air.

Lowder's propsheen was a rose-colored halo, and through that halo, he could see two shining specks far ahead of him. One of those specks was a brainless kid the devil had tricked into swift danger—the other was a man whose heart was bigger than his body, whose soul was stronger than his limbs.

Lowder fought the Merlin to the last ounce of power it could supply. He began to draw closer—closer to those shining specks. They crossed the Maginot line—went on and on over the Siegfried Wall. Then Lowder half rose from his seat.

Six drab, gray Messerschmitts slid off a cloudbank and nosed after the two ships ahead. A white Messerschmitt led them. For a moment, Lowder's apprehension grew less.

That was Baron Lieber taking the German rookies out for an airing. It was the Baron's habit to take the raw kids out for a taste of war flying, every evening at this time, as there was little chance of encountering the enemy.

But tonight, a fool, and a cripple, proved too enticing a bait for the raw Nazi squadron to overlook. Before Lowder could get close enough to give a hand, the six ships yammered down. The swift attack drove Hacken and Reeves lower. The whole fight went down a thousand feet.

Lowder was above them when he reached the scene. He could see clearly everything that was happening. He saw the kid jerk the Hurricane around, make a wild play' for Baron Lieber in the white Messerschmitt!

The kid seemed to forget the fact that there were five other ships all too anxious to smother him with hot lead. He was thinking of his easy victory over Fahnk, perhaps. Without giving a thought the kid lunged at Baron Lieber!

Lowder knew that was a fatal mistake. He pounded his dash and yelled, "For the sake of God, kid . . ."

He didn't finish the warning. He saw three of the rookies in perfect formation slam across to catch the kid offguard. Lowder spilled his Hurricane to save the lad, but he knew he would be too late. Before he could pull out, and line his guns, it would all be over.

Down he went, the wind shrieking like dervishes past the fuselage. Down—down . . . Lowder tensed, and felt his throat constrict. The Nazis had the kid dead to rights!

Lowder could see Hacken jerk and stiffen in the pit as the hot lead knifed around him. The Nieuport shuddered and bucked like a wounded animal. Hacken was making a futile, wild attempt to pump his guns at Baron Lieber.

It was no go. Nothing could live in the storm of death that lashed around the kid's hunched head. Lowder could see the kid's white face turned back-could see the dismay and terror written there at the sight of the Nazi squadron on his tail.

A thunderbolt broke up the play as the Hurricane was falling apart. Lowder saw Reeves, miraculously flying his ship with the cunning of a mind well-trained for the task, hurl the Hurricane at the Nazi trio. The guns spat a short burst, not even enough to warm the chambers, and then they stopped!

Lowder cursed. The fates had marked the kid for the Nazi stew. Nothing could save him now. Lowder tried desperately to twist his own ship out of the dive into a half roll that would skid him out between the Nazi formation, but he couldn't make it.

Yet something did save young Hacken. That bright thing called sacrifice, glowed for a moment like a white fire. Reeves, a human derelict of a ghastly war, wrote his own citation across the sky with fingers of blood. His guns empty, he jerked his ship around with force enough to strip the wings. Then, without hesitation, he rammed that ship in front of the Nazi who was blasting Hacken!

Lowder felt the shock as the two ships came together. For a moment the Messerschmitt and the Hurricane were one writhing mass of metal! They tore apart, with Reeves still fighting for control of his ship. The rest of the Nazi squadron zoomed frantically away from danger.

All that had happened almost within the blinking of an eye. Honor and glory and sacrifice had been born in the space of time it took Lowder to complete his dive. As he pulled out, he saw the Nazis, out of formation now charge at Reeves in a snarling mass, angered that the crippled pilot had prevented a kill.

The Major saw Hacken, his face a white mask framed in blood, whanging his battered ship around to help the man who had thrown away his life to save him. Ramming the Hurricane through the pack of Messerschmitt buzzards, Hacken emptied his guns into the white Nazi.

Flame burst like a rose from Baron Lieber's ship. For a moment the Baron's sharp face was visible, white—terrified! Then smoke hid it from view and the doomed ship followed after Reeves who was moaning down in a flat spit that could end only in disaster!

Things became blurred to Lowder. He saw Hacken going down, too. One of the remaining four Messerschmitts was following Hacken like a vulture. Lowder screwed his Hurricane upon that ship, to stop it. He stabbed the trips and held them down like an amateur so anxious he was to save the kid.

At that moment of screaming hell, the world seemed to explode in Lowder's grim face. Three Nazis were pouring hot lead at him. The snarling slugs plowed viciously through his staggering ship. He felt. the Merlin buck—die—buck again!

At the same instant a hot iron seemed to knife through his scalp just above his eyes. He could feel the warm blood oozing down. his face and he shook his head fiercely to throw it off. He'd been hit, but it didn't matter. What difference did one more scar make in a face like his?

He tried to see Hacken, but blood stopped his eyes and his bony hand dug them clear. Then he smelled raw gas. He could see the stream of precious petrol pouring from the bullet hole in the tanks.

The Merlin had caught, and was droning again. Hacken was out of sight. Lowder knew that the only thing he could do was head for home as fast as he could. He did just that. He whanged the riddled Hurricane down for the runway of the 92nd with such vicious force that the landing wheels almost collapsed.

AT the line, Lowder legged down. He looked like a fearsome ghost in the half-light of dusk. Tears mingled with blood frothed down his lined, scarred face. The mechs gaped at him in silent awe as he swung around and legged fiercely for his office.

The major threw his tired body into the rickety chair, and reached for his bottle. The liquor almost gagged him, then he got it down and his nerves loosened a little. For ten full minutes he sat staring at the wall.

He was thinking of that message from Wing—citation—trip to Paris— command of a squadron! He had a wild impulse to laugh. It had ended like he had said it would. The dam-fool kid had got himself killed by a Nazi weanling, and he'd taken Reeves with him!

What could he tell Wing? How could he explain . . .

Lowder's thoughts were snuffed out by the sound of a motor blipping in for a landing. He tried to think who it might be. The wing colonel, maybe, coming to confirm his message in person.

Lowder gulped another drink. He was in no humor to kowtow to brass hats. He was puzzled by the shuffle of feet across the porch of his office. The door flung in, and a muddy, disheveled figure staggered into the room, carrying a burden upon his back.

Lowder leaped up, his throat constricted. Fierce, stabbing sobs broke across that still space. The man carrying the burden was the kid, Hacken. The burden was the lifeless form of Lieutenant Reeves!

Lowder couldn't speak. Hacken's raw, ghastly sobbing turned into ragged words. "There he is—what's left of him! Go on—curse me—damn me for the fool I am!" the kid screamed.

Lowder got around the desk someway, he didn't know just how. Damn his eyes, he couldn't see very well. He helped put Reeve's body on the couch in the corner. Then he swung on the kid.

"How did you do this—why?"

"I owed it to him," the kid regained his composure in some measure. "I thought I was the Angel Gabriel, and was going out to lick Hitler's air force. Reeves sacrificed his life to save meme, a worthless idiot! I followed him down—killed a Nazi who tried to take us. Then I got my plane off again and here we are."

Lowder felt his anger melt away. He looked at the kid with new respect. Here was something that did deserve a medal. How the lad had ever come back alive in that crippled ship was almost a miracle. Lowder spoke softly, as though afraid lest he disturb the peaceful countenance of Reeves, whose lips were curved in a satisfied smile.

"Never mind about Reeves, kid. He couldn't have picked a better way to ride out." He went on, and told Hacken of the message from Wing. "After what you've just done, I think you should accept the decoration," he finished evenly.

Hacken quit biting his lip. His blond head went back, and his chest arched out.

"Yes," he said calmly, "I'll go to Paris. I'll let the whole damned world know that I'm accepting that decoration in the name of Lieutenant Bill Reeves, who couldn't be present because the good die first!"